ALL HANDS ON DECK: LEFT AND RIGHT
Editorial in The Bennington Banner, March 6, 2009
One of President Barack Obama's signature contributions to our public debate has been his call for a more inclusive, reasoned and civil discussion of issues at the intersection of religion and public life.
It is well known that the president made his first foray into public service as a community organizer in Chicago. What isn't as well known is that he worked extensively with churches and his work was in part funded by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.
While running for president, Mr. Obama spoke about the need for "an all hands on deck" approach to solving the nation's problems, and this includes faith-based and secular neighborhood groups.
As president, Mr. Obama established by executive order the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. To some on the left, this represents the continuation of an unfortunate and failed initiative from the administration of George W. Bush.
In fact, however, there is a long history of government partnering with faith-based groups to provide community services. A study by The Brookings Institution notes that in the early 1800s, the government "provided funds to a variety of orphanages and hospitals, some of which had religious roots and ties."
Today, religious non-profits are using government funds to serve the poor in places such as New Orleans, inner-city Philadelphia and sub-Saharan Africa. Since the Clinton administration, the idea of increased White House cooperation between government and faith-based groups has been endorsed and implemented by both Democratic and Republican presidents.
President Obama's executive order lays out four goals for his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships: to help groups on the ground closest to the problem fight poverty; to help address teenage pregnancy and reduce the number of abortions; to help young men be responsible fathers; and to help foster interfaith dialogue with leaders and scholars around the world.
A former professor of constitutional law, Mr. Obama has indicated full awareness of the sensitivity of the issues involved in governmental partnerships with faith-based organizations. He knows that federal grants shouldn't be used by religious groups to proselytize those served, and taxpayer money can't fund inherently religious activities.
Similarly, faith-based groups need to serve everyone eligible for their programs, regardless of creed. In addition, there needs to be close monitoring and evaluation of what programs actually work, and those that don't work should not be funded.
However, President Obama has backed off his campaign pledge that religious groups should not discriminate in hiring for their service programs that receive government funds. Rather, he has left in place executive orders and waivers that the Bush administration put in place for groups that hire only co-religionists.
The new office will deal with such hiring issues on a "case-by-case" basis, with the option to seek legal input from White House counsel and the Justice Department.
This isn't good enough, and it points out a larger issue with the whole concept of a White House office to deal with faith-based partnerships: It is a recent development in our nation's civil life and needs to be set on a better-thought-out and more stable foundation.
In getting "all hands on deck" to solve our nation's problems, we need to be make sure we can all work together in the same places at the same time, without energy-consuming turf wars and expensive legal battles.